Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Syracuse Cathedral

Syracuse, on the eastern side of Sicily was a major Greek colony which was said to rival Athens in power at one point. It fell to the Romans in 212 BC and is now, of course, part of Italy.  My wife and I passed by the magnificent baroque style Cathedral as it stands today.  

We decided to see whether it was open and gingerly walked inside. We were not prepared for what we discovered. 

Inside we were supposed to find columns that resemble those commonly seen at Greek temples dedicated to gods such as Apollo, Zeus, and Athena.

It turns out the present cathedral was originally a temple dedicated to Athena. Hence the Greek columns in the walls of the cathedral.  

On the outside, there was nothing to indicate that this is anything but a Catholic church in the Baroque style.  

However, looking at the main doors from the inside, the Greek columns are nothing but conspicuous.  

We have heard of pagan temples converted into Christian churches.  This is the first time we are able to see how it was done - at least one of the ways in which it was done.  We are very happy that we decided to take a chance to check it out.  

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Pompeii the Sin City?

What was Pompeii like?  I saw a sizeable, fairly organised city.  However, it was said that the streets are so filthy that stones had to be placed in the middle of the streets so that people can cross without getting their feet sullied by the muck.  

It had a theatre, which is quite modest in size, perhaps befitting the estimated 20,000 population.  

It had sophisticated, hidden-in-the-wall plumbing, which was coloured red.  I found very similar drain pipes in Palermo.  However, it proved insufficient for preventing the streets from getting filthy.

It had drinking fountains not too different from fountains still functioning all over Italy.  

The baths were sophisticated, with hidden-in-the-wall atmospheric heating systems, and intricate carvings in the wall.  

It had impressive mosaic floors. 

It had pretty frescos.  The frescos provide vivid illustrations of the use of slaves.  The slaves were evidently blacks from Africa who were bigger and taller than their masters. 

What people talk about the most, however, are the brothels, with their small rooms with a single bed and nothing else.  

And the vivid illustrations of sexual techniques over the doors. 

There was a sign (in the form of a penis) in the street pointing in the direction of the brothel.

Some say it is the “sins” of the city that prompted God to destroy the city with the volcano eruptions.  I am not convinced.  The sexual exploits of the Romans here are certainly graphic.   But they are perhaps no more shocking than many other cities in the Roman Empire, and elsewhere in the world.  Why pick on Pompeii?

Thursday, January 26, 2017


I have wanted to see it for myself for a long time.  Finally, I am here at Pompeii near Naples, at the foot of its nemesis, Mount Vesuvius.  

Nearly 2,000 years ago, Pompeii was buried under the volcanic ask from the Vesuvius.  It was estimated that ~2,000 people died, mostly the elderly and the slaves - those who would not or could not leave, despite the signs of a an imminent eruption. 

Some moulds of the victims were made.  Many are being exhibited in museums, in Pompeii and elsewhere around the world.  A few are left on the site.  That included a boy,

a man, 

and a dog. 

The dog, in particular, seems to be still in agony.  

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Student Societies

This is a ritual repeated across university campuses in Hong Kong each year.  Students who want to form the new committee of a student society are grilled and often harassed by “old ghosts”, members of the current and former committees.  I have listened to some of the questioning and the old ghosts are often merciless.  And they do this not just for an hour or two, but for whole days and overnight.  There is little or no audience to the proceedings.  Many people wonder whether this ritual may be too its much.  

The grilling of the new committee is apparently for the purpose of training them for the work ahead, how to develop proposals for events, apply for funding, organise events, etc.  Some societies do organise interesting events.  But I have known some societies whose main activities through the year seem to consist of the orientation camp, making of the society jacket, election of new committee, annual dinner, and little else.

Sitting in a society committee is apparently one of the must-dos for university life.  But for some of the students the cost is almost unbearably high. And the return is uncertain.  I have encountered many students who performed poorly academically, and have to be de-registered, kicked out of university.  And one of the main reasons they give for failing to attend classes and catching up with their studies is that they spent too much time in society committees.  

I remembered one particular student who was supposed to be kicked out according to the guidelines.  He appealed, failed, and appealed again.  In the end we felt he was a reasonable students who lost his way and decided to give him a second chance.  He did work hard and graduated with fairly good grades.  But we felt he could have graduated with flying colours had he worked reasonably hard from the beginning.  

Most of the others in his situation were less fortunate.  

Friday, January 20, 2017

Solar Charging Stations in Rwanda

In May 2016, our team went to a village in Gicaca, in the mountains north of Kigali in Rwanda to install a solar-electrical power system.  We setup 4 solar power charging stations.  Solar panels were setup on the roof of the house, leading to a circuit with controllers setup to charge 6 solar batteries at the same time.  We then wired up ~60 houses with LED lights and mobile phone chargers, to be powered by batteries, which can then be taken to the charging stations to be re-charged.  We also trained a team of local youths to continue to wire up 60 more houses, for a total of 120 houses, each with their own battery.  We were only able to buy 30 batteries of the specific type and capacity that we wanted because the shop went out of stock.  

We were very happy when we went back to check on the system earlier this week, roughly 7 months afterwards.  The solar panels on the roof of the station that we inspected are still there and functioning, although they are quite dusty.  Four batteries are being charged, together with 3 mobile phones.  

We were informed that the local youths wired up an additional 40+ houses, for a total of 107 houses.  They could only buy another 35 batteries because the battery that we wanted was not available and they could only find an alternate which was more expensive.  

Even though we are still a bit short of the target of 120 houses, we are more than satisfied because the youths have managed to continue the work without our support.  

We are told that each battery (28 ampere-hour capacity) can last approximately 10 days or more before it needs recharging.  That means we can probably use a battery with a smaller capacity, and use the money saved to buy more batteries, so that more houses can have electricity.  

For the coming summer, we will need to raise more funds, to buy more batteries, LEDs, wires, controllers, etc., to do another round of installations with an improved design, with another team of students.  Our first class starts tomorrow.  We are getting excited already.  


Saturday, January 14, 2017

Animals of Myanmar

I made a lot of friends in Myanmar.  People friends as well as animals.  A cute baby goat head-butted my fist on the roadside while I was waiting for a taxi to arrive. 

Two thoughtful kittens guarded one of the houses where we installed solar panels and lighting.  

A mother pig watched wearily as the lady master scooped up the piglets to be put under the little cage.  This was probably for the protection of the tiny piglets, as I watched the lady drove away a chicken harassing the piglets.  I didn’t think a chicken would harass a pig but the chicken was actually quite a bit bigger than the piglet. 

There were hundreds of ducks in a pond, quacking loudly while flocking this way and then that other way, making a racket seemingly without a purpose. 

There were, of course, a lot of chicken, cows, dogs, ….  

Especially dogs.  They normally do not bother you.  One evening I went out jogging on the campus of Dagon University and passed by at least 20 dogs without arousing their interest.  After the sun went down it became very dark.    Two dogs got up to chase me.  At first I thought they would stop when I was beyond their territory.  When they did not stop but instead started barking, I became a bit worried.  So I stopped, turned around and barked at them, even louder than whey were.  They stopped, turned around, and continued to bark - but in a way that was more like whimpering.  I continued to run, but turned toward where there were more light and people, and headed back to the dormitory where were were staying.  I forgot to take a picture of the 2 dogs. 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Solar Power as SL in Myanmar

For the first time, our team is installing solar power systems in Myanmar.  In the past, we have done robotics programming, digital storytelling, and STEM.   This year, our partner, Dagon University, helped us find a village about an hour and a half by car the north east of Yangon where many families are without electrical power. 

To get to some of the houses, we often have to cross slimy gutters on rickety “bridges”.  

Our students are busy installing solar panels, indoor wiring, LED lights, …  Considering that most are not engineering students and many had not experience with hand tools prior to taking our service-learning subject, this is quite an achievement.  

We have not passed the midpoint of the 5 day service project.  We are on track to complete the installation of solar-electrical power for 24 families.  

Some houses have outdoor “bathrooms” consisting of a wooden platform, a big water pot, and a piece of soap.  A woman pointed out to us that the water was fetched from a pond behind a monastery not far away.  Our nursing instructor was quite concerned that this is also the water that is used to cook and drink, and the water looked yellowish.  We solved one problem for the family - electricity.  But we cannot do anything about the other major problem - water - at this point.  

Friday, January 06, 2017

Motion Training for Special Kids

Some of my readers have gotten the impression that our students serve only overseas in countries such as Cambodia, Rwanda, …  In fact, ~3,000 of our students (~75% of the total), serve in Hong Kong in 2015-16.  

One of the teams developed a number of systems for a special school in Tseung Kwan O (將軍澳).  Most of the kids in the school are severely handicapped, both physically and mentally. One of the systems is designed to provide motion training by encouraging the kids to move along a row of cushions, with row of LED lights on either side of the row of cushions.  

A Kinect motion seeing device, essentially a special camera which can sense distance, is used to detect the distance moved and then the LEDs will change colour.  Technologically, it is not very difficult to design and implement.  But it seems to give the kids a lot of fun, and at the same time, encourage them to move better.  

Our students visited the school to understand the needs of kids, discussed with the staff there and their teachers (me and my colleagues at the university) possible solutions, designed and tested the solutions, and then trained the kids to use them.  Many iterations were required before something usable can be developed.  

In the process, our students learn to appreciate the difficulties faced by some of the kids with special needs, how technology can be used to improve the lives of the under-privileged, how to communicate with these kids who may be very different from us, how to work in a team, and ultimately, how to be a responsible citizen.   It is a hugely rewarding experience for all of us.  

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Down and Out on New Year’s Eve

On New Year’s Eve, many people were having posh dinners and parties, watching fireworks, and otherwise trying to have a good time.  Our family went to a Japanese restaurant for a regular family dinner.  We were turned off by the $1,000+ per person charge.  It would have costed our family of 4 more than $5,000 Hong Kong dollars.  It is enough to put a student in a university on Mainland China for a year.  Or to pay a primary school teacher in many South East Asian countries such as Cambodia and Myanmar for half a year, or a university lecturer for 2 months.  We ended up eating a nice dinner at another Japanese restaurant at a small fraction of the price.  

I recalled I was reminded of the harsh realities of life when I ran into a reminder of a colourful character - the self-proclaimed “Emperor of Kowloon”  九龍皇帝 曾灶財.  He was, in reality, a poor man in poor health who wrote big-character graffiti all over Kowloon.  Since he passed away in 2007, most of his graffiti have been painted over by the government.  This column in front of the Start Ferry Pier in Tsim Sha Tsui is one of the very few remaining.  I wonder how long it will last.  

Canton Road is lined with posh shops.  But less than 1 kilometre away from those shops, many people were sleeping in the tunnel at the junction of Canton Road and Austin Road. 

Further up in Yau Ma Tei, several little makeshift “houses” have sprung up under the elevated highway.  

I know there are similar street sleepers under the highway in Shum Shui Po.  But this is the first time I have seen them here. 

The government have posted notices demanding that the inhabitants evacuate and the structures be dismantled.  

I suspect that the problem would not go away easily.  The reality is that many people simply cannot afford to rent a decent apartment, when a 150 square feet apartment rents for more than $5,000.  

Not everyone is having a happy new year.